Shopping Basket

Diving a Bleached Reef | Roger Munns

Roger Munns is an underwater wildlife cameraman with an enviable portfolio. One of the principal camera operatives on the BBC’s ground-breaking Blue Planet II, he has filmed in aquatic environments from the bountiful tropics to the frozen poles.

In our second instalment of conversations with Roger, he gives us the inside line on a subject close to his heart - coral bleaching - and how, if we are to preserve these natural super-structures for future generations, action must be taken swiftly.

The devastation of a bleached coral reef

I dropped in to the top of the reef. It was barren, like being in some sort of post- apocalyptic nightmare. Where once had been towering structures of limestone, encrusted with hard coral plates surrounded by a cloud of thousands of tiny, beautiful, fluttering anthias was now a single bleak grey boulder - a tombstone. The surface of the entire sea mount was just as grey, as if the producer of this dystopian movie I’d dropped in to had chosen a particularly de-saturated film stock. I swam around with my camera disconsolately and documented the few remaining citizens of this once beautiful and lively underwater city as they swam around, dazed and confused, like shellshocked people emerging from their homes after an air raid. I’d dived damaged and bleached reefs before but this one affected me quite deeply.

The experience stayed with me and, as I sit at home in our new surreal reality, homeschooling my young children while the world is locked down, I hope that my Maldives experience will not become the norm. With factories closed and half of humanity on lockdown that means a massive reduction in emissions associated with fossil fuel burning activities like flying, driving and industrial activities which will potentially, maybe just for little while, help slow the warming of our planet. The swift reaction of governments to the Corona Virus threat and the measures implemented show that, when the impetus is there, we can change our lifestyles dramatically in response to crises. But do we have the will to maintain that change for a longer period for the good of our planet? Can we curb our flying habits? Can we live with less?

"In the first decade of this millennium it seemed like our planet held unbelievable underwater secrets that would continually be discovered. Slowly though those new and pristine discoveries dried up. And then the more popular spots lost their lustre."

I’ve been diving on tropical coral reefs since I first strapped on a scuba tank at Julian Rocks off Byron Bay in 2000. Since then I’ve lived and worked in South East Asia, the heart of marine biodiversity, as an underwater cameraman. I’ve racked up over 8,000hrs filming and photographing coral reefs and their inhabitants over those 19 years in locations including Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Maldives, Egypt, Bahamas and many more.

Back when I started out it felt like new, and ever more amazing coral reefs were being found constantly. The Similans in Thailand was spectacular and a new must-dive destination in the early noughties, Then the Andamans, Palau, and Komodo hit the scene. Followed up by the icing on the cake, Raja Ampat. Raja boasted the most diverse coral reefs ever studied and over 1,500 species of fish. In the first decade of this millennium it seemed like our planet held unbelievable underwater secrets that would continually be discovered. Slowly though those new and pristine discoveries dried up. And then the more popular spots lost their lustre. Over-dived, over-fished, hit by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, destroyed by violent storms... the reasons were myriad but the results were the same - degraded reefs. All of a sudden there were only a handful of remote, hard-to-get-to sites left that could truly be called pristine. And now even those are under threat from probably the biggest issue facing these underwater cities; coral bleaching.

Roger Munns films turtles over a sea mound

In simple terms coral bleaching is the whitening of coral that results from the ejection of a coral's symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) due to exposure to excessive heat. Once those algae have gone there remains only a skeleton which then crumbles to leave nothing but rubble. Corals are relatively hardy and can survive short term exposure to temperature rises but if exposed to a sustained period they are not able to recover. The phenomenon of large scale bleaching events has been accelerating over the past couple of decades to the point where places like the Maldives have lost most of their shallow water corals.

Even some of the stars of Blue Planet II that I filmed back in 2015 have been affected by coral bleaching. Percy, the charismatic tuskfish with the penchant for smashing clams open on his anvil, lives on Big Vicky’s, one of the 900 reefs found within the 2,300km long Great Barrier Reef. Big Vicky’s had 80% of its branching corals die in the space of a couple of brutally hot months in early 2017 just months before Blue Planet II went to air. The GBR, the worlds largest living structure, larger than the UK and visible from space, lost over half of its shallow water corals in two successive mass bleaching events from 2016-2017.

"The world will recover from coronavirus but, unless we take some of the lessons we learn during this time to heart, coral reefs will not recover from climate change."

In fact while I am writing this article the GBR is experiencing what will be its third mass bleaching event in the past five years. With average yearly ocean temperatures over the past 10 years being the warmest 10 years on record it’s possible that these previously freak occurrences will become near annual events. These bleaching events are getting bigger and more frequent. Studies have estimated that we may lose all our coral reefs by 2100 but, from what I’ve seen, I believe it's possible the majority of shallow hard coral reefs will be gone much sooner, perhaps in my lifetime.

What can we do? I don’t have the answers. After my harrowing dive in the Maldives I was a bit overwhelmed and felt rather helpless but I made some small steps such as offsetting my work travel through a scheme run by Cardiff University called Regrow Borneo which re-plants trees along the Kinabatangan river. I also started cutting down the weight of my filming gear and flight cases and trying to take jobs closer to home. Small steps but hopefully in the right direction. What I do know is that we need to take this opportunity, this pause in our normal lives, to take stock and focus on solutions to the important issues. Global warming is certainly one of the biggest of those issues. To paraphrase a quote I read recently, "the world will recover from coronavirus but, unless we take some of the lessons we learn during this time to heart, coral reefs will not recover from climate change."

Words by Roger Munns  |  Images © Scubazoo.com